Social entrepreneurs share their innovative community building projects
By Brian Wheeler
Thursday, April 19, 2012
The Tom Tom Founders Festival launched a series of weekly innovation talks Wednesday with a panel discussion examining “social entrepreneurs,” local people starting projects focused on social change.
“The underlying idea [of the festival] is that Charlottesville is a creative hub among many different disciplines,” said Tom Tom co-founder Paul Beyer, making introductions to a gathering of almost 30 people.
“Specifically with this series, we want to highlight innovation,” added co-founder Oliver Platts-Mills. “Place-based innovation is highly influenced by the place itself, Charlottesville.”
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Belmont resident Michelle Oliva is a consultant supporting social enterprises. After moving here in 2010, Oliva said she is seeing a critical mass of people getting interested in this issue.
“Social entrepreneurship should be built into the DNA of a company,” said Oliva. “It should be something that is sustainable and that generates benefit to society.”
The Community Investment Collaborative, started in 2011, helps entrepreneurs who often find it hard to get support from traditional sources.
“We recognize that it is so hard for folks to start their own business,” said CIC co-founder Toan Nguyen, who also owns C’ville Coffee. “Having the idea is not enough. We provide training, funding and mentoring. The three together makes it a very powerful combination.”
“There is an extraordinary wealth of talent in our community,” said CIC co-founder Wendy Brown. “The big thing nonprofits need is not money, it’s expertise.”
Ernestine Matthews is a student in the current CIC class of more than 20 entrepreneurs.
“My vision is to do emergency child care,” said Matthews, standing in the audience. “I will open my doors 24 hours a day…to accommodate the needs of our citizens. I am on the right path and I am going to see this business prosper.”
The Charlottesville Institute was founded in January by Charlottesville City Councilor Dave Norris.
“It’s all about innovation; the whole point is to tap into the resources at the University of Virginia to solve and address local problems in innovative ways,” Norris said. “It’s a great place to live, but we have our issues here.”
Kimberly Suyes is director of community development lending at the Piedmont Housing Alliance. She described new financing programs the group has under development.
“We can match federal money by bringing in money and lending it out,” Suyes said. “Lots of developers are looking at projects that would be beneficial to our community, but it’s difficult getting money right now.”
Suyes said PHA can provide gap financing and that they are seeking a pool of donors interested in making local investments to leverage federal grants.
Alaina Rhee is a second-year student at UVa who describes herself as being very interested in the community and social investment. She said projects that provide microfinancing support are important in both less-developed countries and Charlottesville.
“Our economic situation in the United States is not the best right now,” said Rhee. “Microfinancing is a bottom-up way to rebuild the economy and invest in innovation.”
A number of the speakers noted that Charlottesville has a variety of resources that could be better leveraged for social benefits.
“Charlottesville is such a great place to live, a paradise,” Nguyen said. “But the problem with a paradise is you can get complacent when you don’t have the pain to get you to do things.”
“Charlottesville has all the energy and talent to make this a great community for everyone, we just need to harness it,” Brown concluded.
The series will continue for the next three Wednesdays. The next panel will be at The Gleason at 126 Garrett St. and will focus on the topic of sustainable design. Follow the Tom Tom innovation series at www.cvilletomorrow.org/TomTom.